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Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced by Stephanie Dalley

This is a drawing of what Stephanie Dalley believes the Hanging Garden of Babylon, actually the Garden of Nineveh really looked like.

The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon: An Elusive World Wonder Traced
 by Stephanie Dalley
Oxford University Press
Published August 1st, 2013

  The Hanging Gardens of Babylon were recognized by Greek and Roman writers as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  When the ancient population centers of Mesopotamia were rediscovered by western Archeologists/Adventurers in the mid to late 19th century, folks immediately started wondering when they would discover traces of this ancient wonder.  After ancient Babylon was located, and no garden seemed to be forthcoming, attention turned to the now deciphered languages of this area.  More shock when there seemed to be no mention of any such Hanging Garden in Babylon.  This absence has been a source of much trouble for the author, a noted professor and expert in reading ancient cuneiform script, since any lecture she gives to a general audience about Babylon ends with people asking her "But what about the Hanging Garden of Babylon?"
Map Showing the Ancient Empires of the Near East: Egypt, Hittite, Assyria and Babylon

  Dalley set out to answer the mystery using her unique skill set as a reader of ancient languages and her over-all knowledge of the both the Ancient Near East AND the sources that interpreted this area to the west before the rediscovery of the ruins and language in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Dalley uncovers confusion on several levels.  First, writers, both ancient and modern, had a tendency to confuse Babylon with Assyria.  Babylon was essentially "South Mesopotamia" and Assyria was "North Mesopotamia."  This confusion was understandable: Both empires conquered the Middle East, both sacked Jerusalem, Assyria conquered Babylon, etc.   And whereas the Babylonians had one capital city (Babylon) the Assyrians had several, eventually settling on Nineveh.

  Babylon was an unlikely location for any kind of Hanging Garden, because it is located on a flat plain in the middle of a desert, whereas Nineveh is up in the mountains, and has a river running beneath.   Dalley constructs her case carefully, arguing that the Hanging Garden of Babylon was in fact the Hanging Garden of Nineveh.   Her argument is a mixture of reinterpretations of old ancient western sources, new interpretations of archeological discoveries in the mid to late 20th century and a deeper understanding of the cultural understandings of the ancient near east.

  All these sources both explain why the West believed that the Hanging Garden was in Babylon, and why it was actually in Nineveh.  The city of Babylon actually meant of "Gate of Gods" and the Assyrian monarchs (and others) would copy that design for their own cities, making other cities "A" Babylon (think of the way Las Vegas has an Eiffel Tower.)  Over time, references to cities being "a" Babylon were confused with references to Babylon itself.

  Dalley also corrects many misconceptions about what the Garden of Babylon looked like.  The drawing at the beginning of the post is what she came up with (the actual drawing was done by a guy who specializes in such historical reconstructions.)   This is in contrast to the many popular representations that show actual hanging plants, a garden planted on the ledges of ziggurats and more fanciful designs with little basis in any kind of reality.

 Dalley also contends that there is no reason to think that the Nineveh and its garden abruptly disappeared after the conquest of Assyria by the Persians.  Generations of scholars have relied on the apocalyptic language of the available post-destruction texts, but Dalley points out that such language was ritualistic and likely overstated the extent of the destruction.  Thus, the idea that people could have actually seen the gardens or their remnants hundreds of years after the fall of Assyria is in no way fanciful or unrealistic.

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